I have been confronted with the question of what is “Reformed” or what is “Calvinism” lately. Because this is an important question, I thought I would take the opportunity to share my thoughts on this issue. The terminology, both historically and theologically, can be confusing, so a little clarity is due.
Generally speaking, when one says they are Reformed, the can be saying a couple of things. It could mean that they are part of a Reformed denomination associated with the Dutch tradition. When one thinks of the Dutch Reformed, various denominations come to mind. For instance, there are the Free Reformed, the Netherlands Reformed, the Heritage Netherlands Reformed, the Christian Reformed, etc. These are specific denominations with specific distinctives that set them apart as being “Reformed.” One of these key distinctives is “Reformed theology,” which we are now coming to. Reformed theology is not relegated to the Dutch Reformed churches, even though their name says “Reformed.” In fact, because of the encroachment of liberal theology, some Dutch Reformed churches have abandoned Reformed theology, such as the Reformed Church of America.
When a person says that they are Reformed, they could also be saying that they are “Calvinists.” By this they are talking about a certain understanding of the Bible that has been historically arranged in the TULIP acrostic. Here is what “TULIP” stands for.
T – Total depravity. This means that all human beings born of Adam are born inheritors of Adam’s sin nature (Rom. 5). The Bible calls this state of being “in Adam” as being “dead in sin.” Every aspect of a person’s being is infected with sin and they are therefore “depraved.” Paul in Romans 3, quoting Psalm 14, says that no one is righteous, not even one. No one does good.
U – Unconditional election. Because of the depravity mentioned above, there is nothing that a person “dead in sin” can do to make themselves alive. So for a person to be saved, it needs to primarily be an act of God, as we shall see in a moment. This saving act of God is the outcome of God’s gracious election of a people from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Because every human is sinful, there can be nothing intrinsically lovely within them that God conditions His election upon. Therefore, His election is based solely on His own good pleasure, and not of anything found within us. And this is to the praise of His glory (Eph. 1:14).
L – Limited atonement. People often have trouble with this term, because it sounds like somehow Christ’s work on the cross is limited in terms of its quality or power. To get around this notion, theologians often refer to this as “particular redemption.” I prefer this term because the emphasis is on the intent of the atonement, which is the issue at hand. Because Christ’s death is is an atonement for sin, only those who have had their sins forgiven were actually atoned for. The very nature of atonement is the removal of sin and condemnation. The implication of this is that Christ did not die savingly for everyone, but only those who are of His fold. What I have found most helpful is a study on various Biblical words such as atonement, propitiation, justification, etc.
I – Irresistable grace. Just as with the “L” above, some people have preferred to use a different term instead of “irresistable.” Many prefer to consider God’s saving grace as “effective” or “efficacious” grace. What this means is that when the Holy Spirit calls a sinner to come savingly to Christ, this call is effectual (meaning, it will happen). A person who is called will not resist the leading of the Spirit and will in fact come to Christ. This is not a forcing of the will, rather it is a “rebirth” where the will is renegerated and has been given the God-given desire and ability to come to Christ.
P – Perseverance of the saints. This is often referred to as “once saved, always saved” or the doctrine “eternal security.” And while this is true, the language is a bit simplistic. What some have erroneously understood this to mean is that once a person is saved, they don’t have to show any signs of conversion in their life. Yet this view stands against the teaching of Christ who said, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matt. 7:16). The issue is that a truly converted Christian will, with the help of God, persevere in the faith until the end. A true sheep will not fall away, but will be led to glory by God’s grace. Surely there will be pit-falls and stumbling along the way, but with the mercy of God, all true Christians will get there.
Historically speaking, anyone who is part of the Dutch Reformed tradition, holds to TULIP. This acrostic is also known as the “five points of Calvinism.” In fact, the original “five points” were first outlined in the Netherlands at the famous council held there called the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619). Yet Calvinism is not confined to just the Dutch Reformed churches. Calvinism, because it is the fullest expression of the Gospel, rightly cuts across all denominational lines. In fact, most Christian denominations were started as Calvinistic denominations. For instance, the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Baptists all had their beginnings in the Reformation or the period just following it and they all began as Calvinists to one degree or another.
Today there are many Presbyterian churches that are Reformed, including the Presbyterian Church of America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, etc.
There are also a number of Baptist associations that are Calvinistic including the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, the Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals, the Sovereign Grace Baptists, the General Assembly of Regular Baptists, as well as a growing number of Southern Baptists.
It may be surprising to some, but Calvinism is also found in certain Pentecostal/charismatic churches such as C.J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries.
So Calvinism, or being Reformed, is not necessarily a denomination. Rather it is an understanding of the Gospel that lets the Bible speak for itself. Of course Calvinism, as it is worked out, becomes more than just the “five points,” but this is where one must start when seeking to understand it.
If you are interested in reading further on this, I would suggest a couple of articles and some books:
Comparison of Calvinism and Arminianism by David Steele and Curt Thomas.
Introduction to the Reformed Faith by John Frame.
What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism – John Piper, et al.
The Doctrines of Grace by James M. Boice and Philip G. Ryken
Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul
The Five Points of Calvinism by David Steele and Curtis Thomas.
Tulip: The Five Points of Calvinism in the Light of Scripture by Duane Edward Spencer
The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Lorraine Boettner